We have #ThrowbackThursday and #FlashbackFriday, but no catchy hashtag for taking things back on a Saturday, so we’ll just label this as a random blast from the past. This week runDisney announced that the 2021 Marathon and Princess weekends, normally held in January and February, will now be virtual. While I wasn’t signed up for either, I am in some runDisney Facebook groups and have seen the disappointment of others who were holding out hope that they would be live. Seeing comments from those who had plans to run their first half made me think about my first half, which was run during the 2013 Walt Disney World Marathon weekend, so I thought I would share my running and racing origin story with you. (Go grab some popcorn, you will be here for a while. Got it? Good.)
To start, I first need to take you back to the 2012 WDW Marathon weekend. My sister, who up until this point had not been a runner, decided she wanted to run a Disney half marathon. Someone put the bug in her ear and she thought, “Why not?” so she signed up. Being in early January, I was able to get off of work, my brother was on break from school, and my dad was able to snag his time share condo in Florida the week of the race, so we decided to make it a family vacation and come cheer her on. Now, up until this point, my perception of any race over 5k was that they were for “serious runners”. You know, those who ran track or cross country in high school, maybe athletic soccer players who easily ran up and down the field, but certainly not your average, everyday person. Now, I had no doubt my sister would finish this race, but it still felt like it was outside of what I would ever be capable of. I mean, I had just started working out semi-regularly a year or two before, mostly walking on the treadmill during my dinner break at work and when that became easy I started throwing in some run intervals (looking back they were basically sprint intervals, no wonder running felt hard). I had tried Couch to 5k several times and it never stuck. It got too hard too fast and figured I would never be a “real” runner and left it at that. After all, growing up I was known for being involved in music and dance, not sports. But watching my sister run, combining normal race day magic with Disney magic, and seeing people of all shapes, sizes, and abilities running that half marathon (plus suddenly being aware that they give out pretty, shiny medals at the end), the seed was officially planted.
During the summer of 2012 I decided to give this whole running thing another shot. I started up C25k (for about the 8th time) and got to the point that I could run a whole mile without walking. Someone told me to think “jog” not “run” and slow down so I could run further. It seems so simple now, but that thought had never crossed my mind and is probably why the program had always failed me before. I think I was maybe in week 6 or 7 of the program and thought, “Well this is going fairly well. If I just keep this up getting to the half distance by January should be no problem.” (Oh, how I laugh at myself now!) But at that point the confidence was starting to grow, the itch to get the shiny bling was in my head, and the price of the race was going up soon (this was when Disney races took months to sell out, not hours) so I made a decision – I was in.
Yep, the very first race I ever signed up for was a half marathon (go big or go home?).
I knew nothing about running, but the Jeff Galloway runDisney training plans taught me about the run/walk method and somewhere along the line that kind of stuck. I actually don’t have a lot of data to look back on other than overall mileage because I was using a Nike+iPod to track my runs, so no GPS (plus when Nike+ transitioned to the Nike Run app they lost a lot of my notes) and a cheap $10 watch from Walmart to keep track of the interval times. Vaguely. I didn’t actually set it to beep or anything, I just glanced down at the watch every so often. I did roughly 5:00/2:00 intervals, but the walk often got longer and the run got shorter the longer the run distance because I would fall apart. Again, I knew nothing about running and was relying on the Runner’s World forums for information, which was unfortunate because there were several speedier runners there who obviously had never been back of the pack. They basically said that anything slower than a 12 minute mile wasn’t even running and you didn’t need fuel for a half. So I’m going to make this clear to anyone new to running who might be reading this – if you are a slower runner and it takes you 2 to 3 hours to run a half, it would not be unusual to fuel. You may not need it, but many do.
I’m not sure I slept much the night before the race. First of all, for a Disney race you basically have to wake up by 2:30am so you can get to the race and be in the corrals by 4am and the race starts at 5am, so you are kind of guaranteed to be short-changed on sleep. Second of all, I was nervous. The longest I had run was 10 miles which, while normal for many beginner training plans, did not give me confidence that I could cover an additional 3 miles and be within the 3:30 time limit. My training runs had all been about a 15 minute mile, just under the cutoff time. I just wanted to finish and I was scared of the balloon ladies. I had a big case of imposter syndrome but desperately wanted to hush that voice and prove to myself that I could actually do this. I had my normal pre-run breakfast of Rice Chex, grabbed a banana, and off we went to Disney.
Since my family was with me I hung out with them in the Friends & Family area until they started making last calls to head to the corrals. They wished me luck and told me they would see me on the course.
I hit the port-o-potties and then headed with the large mass of people to the start line. The butterflies in my stomach were strong, but I started talking with some people around me who were also running their first half, and we all agreed that we could walk a 16 minute mile if it came down to it and therefore we would all be fine. In just a few hours we would all be half marathoners! It made me feel better others had the same fears I did.
Now, Disney knows how to do races right and make every runner feel special. They have loud music playing at the start, lights everywhere, an MC pumping up the crowd, and they set off fireworks for every single corral start. I think I was ruined for future races who care less about their back of the pack runners. I was in one of the last corrals, so it took a while before I started, but once I got to that start line it was game time. There was only one glitch – right as I crossed the start line, my stomach started growling. When I planned breakfast I failed to take into account the time between then and race start. Oops. Oh well. Nothing I can do about that now. Here we go!
For the first part of the race you run on closed Disney highways. Somewhere around miles 10 or 11ish also runs down that highway, but in the other direction, so when you are in the later corrals, you actually tend to see the winners coming back for their last few miles. I cheered for them as others around me were doing, but as we continued I started doing the math. How the heck were they about to finish when I was still in my first two miles?! I couldn’t comprehend the speed that would take and thought I must have not looked at the map correctly and that must not actually be mile 10 (it was).
The first few miles of the race is magical. There’s a charge of excitement in the air and Disney has on course entertainment and character stops throughout the race. I didn’t plan on stopping as I was so afraid of missing the cutoff, but there was still so much to see. It was also dark. Remember that cheap watch I was using for intervals that didn’t beep at me? Yeah, I had to hit a button to light it up and got so amped up on race day adrenaline that I blew through a walk interval or two. This happened quite a bit in the first 5k or so. I also had no sense of pacing since all of my run data was on the iPod nano clipped to my waistband. I remember running in to Magic Kingdom, which is around the 10k mark and finally checking my iPod. I don’t remember what the elapsed time was, but I remember being highly surprised and ecstatic about how fast I was going (again, I laugh at myself when I think about it – being that far ahead of schedule is now an indicator to SLOW DOWN if I don’t want to crash and burn). I was super excited to run through the castle, but they had race photographers right on the other side and everyone wants their picture in front of the castle so it clogged up the space and we came to a complete standstill (Disney has since moved the photographers to prevent this). I managed to start running right when I got to the other side and as I tried to weave around others, a race photographer managed to snap one of my all time favorite race photos.
After the Magic Kingdom we head to backstage areas and eventually back to highway again. That’s when things started going awry. Around mile 7 I started fading. My sister had given me a Hammer gel before the race and I felt like then was a good time to use it (I know, nothing new on race day, but what did I know? Luckily I had no issues). It did help perk me up for about another mile, but then I just crumbled. Fast. My hamstrings starting really aching and I remember jumping off to the side of the road often from that point on to stretch them out. Meanwhile, while I was crumbling, my family was off on an adventure finding donuts so monstrously large they felt the need to document it. When this race comes up in conversation they still talk about that donut.
At mile 9 I was rethinking all of my life choices that brought me to this moment. My intervals were out the window. I hurt so badly that I could actually feel the difference between walk muscles and run muscles and was switching it up just to give each a small break. At this point, it was all about survival. I wanted to punch the Toy Story army man at mile 9.5 when he yelled at me to run when I was walking up the on ramp (it’s the one evil hill in a Disney race – on ramps are banked way more than you think they are and are weird to run on). When I was approaching mile 10 I remember feeling some relief and pumping myself up. I mean, I was in double digits! What’s 3 more miles? That though abruptly came crashing down when someone next to me on the course was pumping up their friend saying, “Only a 5k left!” While most would find this encouraging, it put things into perspective for me and I did not like what I saw. I had raced a 5k while training and knew that on fresh legs I raced a 5k in 35 minutes. I was barely moving forward now. I was going to be on the course for probably just under another hour. I. wanted. to. cry. Actually, in my late race photos, I put my head down every time I saw a photographer so the brim of my hat covered my face because I felt like if someone actually saw me, they were going to see I was upset and ask me if I was okay and if that happened, I was going to actually cry. If I started crying, I knew I wasn’t going to finish the race, so I pretended I was in this bubble and no one else could see me.
Around mile 12 I was so happy to see the giant golf ball that is Epcot. I knew the race ended in Epcot, so I was almost there! You run “around the world” (or, part of it) before heading in to Tomorrow Land and then back out to the parking lot where the finish is. When I saw that finish line, I booked it with all the energy I had left (which wasn’t much). When I crossed that finish line, I wanted to sit down. I thought it cruel that they make you keep walking to get all of your post race goodies and back to the Friends and Family area. There should be shuttles. But I finally had a shiny medal of my own. I had done it. After 3 hours and 11 minutes, I was officially a half marathoner.
Looking back, I’m honestly surprised I didn’t hurt myself. In the 12 weeks leading up to the race I ran less than 100 miles total and only ran about 2 days per week, one of which was my long run. My long run tired me out (to which I now say, “Duh! I didn’t have a base and my weekly mileage wasn’t supporting that kind of ramp up.”) so I often wasn’t recovered until mid-week. I was super grumpy immediately after the race and I know I went hypoglycemic from lack of fueling. I felt better after several bowls of ice cream. I went out way too fast and skipped too many of my walk breaks in the early miles which came back to haunt me later on. But despite hurting and being miserable for part of the race, something stuck. I’ve since run over 60 races, 10 of them being half marathons, and I’m itching to get out there again as soon as COVID lets us do so.